adventure, Aika, Drachma, Dreamcast, Enrique, Eternal Arcadia, fantasy, Fina, Galcian, Gamecube, Gilder, Nintendo, Overworks, Ramirez, RPG, Sega, Skies of Arcadia, Skies of Arcadia: Legends, Steampunk, Vyse
I sometimes wonder what my life would be like now if I’d never played Skies of Arcadia. It’s a scary thought. Of all the books I’ve read, movies I’ve watched and games I’ve played nothing has given me as much inspiration as a creator of escapist stories. When I was in my teens, this game, above everything else steered my creative instincts towards the kind of wide-eyed, breathless adventure it has become my mission to write. The game’s breezy story, incredibly likeable characters and immersive world have helped me understand the kind of tales I want to tell. It’s difficult to compare games to books and films but I can say with confidence that there is not a single movie or novel I love as much as Skies of Arcadia and although there are two video games I hold in higher regard, neither of them convey the same sense of total adventure, which is really saying something because they’re both Zelda games.
Originally a Dreamcast game released in 2000, the game was ported to Nintendo’s Gamecube in 2003 under the title Skies of Arcadia: Legends, bringing with it a bunch of new side quests and content while cutting out some of the more adult references. Developed by Overworks, a developer that has since been absorbed into the main body of Sega, the game is a classic Japanese RPG that embraces the old traditions of turn-based combat and randomly generated battles. The story draws inspiration from the works of Jules Verne and presents a richly imagined and wonderfully appealing steampunk world of continents floating in the sky and the romance of Air Pirates.
The hero is Vyse, the adolescent son of the head of a band of pirates known as the Blue Storm, who belong to a wider brotherhood of heroic scoundrels called the Blue Rogues. The life of a Blue Rogue involves attacking and boarding military air ships, thieving valuable cargo and treasure and rescuing those in peril. The game begins with the Blue Storm assaulting a battleship of the Valuan Armada, a sequence in which Vyse makes his memorable and effortlessly cool entrance. Vyse is suave, brave, determined and resourceful and these qualities are not tempered by any of the cliché JRPG character flaws. He doesn’t have to grapple with personal angst or revenge issues, he’s just a well-adjusted young hero with a badass pair of cutlasses. He might be the most likeable character in video game history, the Marty McFly of interactive entertainment.
Joining Vyse is Aika, a bright-eyed tomboy with eccentric ginger hair who fights with a boomerang. Together they make one of the most appealing heroic duos in history and their exuberance makes the whole game an absolute breeze to play. At the beginning of the story they rescue a girl wearing strange white clothes who was taken prisoner on the Valuan battleship. The girl, Fina, is Aika’s opposite, demure and reserved, but conceals an important mission. After taking her back to their home on Pirate Isle Vyse and Aika set off in search of a moon stone they see fall on nearby Shrine Island only for the Valuan Armada to attack their home while they are away. They return to find Vyse’s father and the crew of their ship, the Albatross, as well as Fina, have been taken to the Valuan Empire’s capital city where they face execution for piracy. The pair set sail in an uncertain bid to rescue them and so begins an unforgettable adventure as Vyse, Aika and Fina travel the world of Arcadia to prevent the evil designs of the Valuan Empire and its imposing Armada.
The plot is not the most intricate or even original; brave young heroes search for various MacGuffins against the threat of an evil empire, but it’s still the best story I’ve ever found in a video game. Where other JRPGs overload their stories with despair and apocalyptic disasters, Skies of Arcadia feels refreshingly light-hearted and free. This is thanks to a clear focus on the pure sense of adventure as you follow the appealing characters through an imaginative and immersive fantasy world.
Arcadia might be my favourite fictional universe. A world dominated by the power of its six colourful moons, it is a brilliantly realised frontier of mystery and discovery made accessible by the joy of sailing. But it’s not the massive, empty void that Wind Waker’s Great Sea sometimes felt like; this is an ocean world with a rich and varied geography. Islands and land masses are relatively few but there are plenty of huge rock formations and other elements of geographical architecture to give the world shape. The invention in the landscape even extends to the necessity of keeping the player confined to certain areas; hulking stone reefs and impassable sky rifts block your progress until you can upgrade your ship to pass through them. More than this the world is populated by a huge cast of larger-than-life characters and memorable locales to explore. The most vivid is Valua’s capital city, an unremittingly bleak urban dystopia where the poor are confined to run-down slums while the rich party it up in opulent surroundings. This contrasts boldly with the lushness of the jungle village Horteka and the vibrancy of such civilizations as the desert-bound Nasr or the oriental Yafutoma. That vivaciousness extends just as potently to the dungeons from the dark and stormy Valuan catacombs to the misty wonder of the Lost City of Rixis. It’s a rich, varied and interesting world full of secrets and new things to discover and you will definitely want to save it.
Finally the supporting cast enrich the story with flavour from the various amusing shopkeepers to the villains themselves. The Valuan Armada serves as a suitably imposing opposition throughout. One smartly conceived early scene introduces each of its admirals, all of whom manage to stand out by being very different, from the flamboyant and superior Alfonso to the crazed De Loco. Encountering and fighting them one by one whether in hand to hand or ship to ship combat throughout the game remains brilliantly exciting. The Lord of the Armada is Galcian, an imposing and mysterious military genius who lends a palpable sense of brawn to the threat posed by Valua. Even more mysterious is his vice-captain, Ramirez, a cold and callous young swordsman whose cruelty and darkness provides the story with a powerful sense of the unknown.
Meanwhile you will continuously find yourself swapping out your fourth main party member as the story progresses. First in line is Drachma, a hefty and crusty old sailor on his own mission to hunt and kill a gigantic arcwhale. His main weapon is his huge mechanical arm and his place in the team contrasts nicely with the energetic youngsters and despite, or perhaps because of his grumpiness, he is enormously loveable. Then there is Gilder, a Blue Rogue captain who spends his days searching for adventure and the good life and gets all the ladies. He’s the definitive loveable rogue, dashing in his long red coat and a badass with his favoured revolver. He’s almost impossibly cool. Finally there is Enrique, Valua’s conscientious prince who sides with Vyse to fight against the oppressive ambitions of his mother, the empress. Enrique is nowhere near as awesome as Drachma and Gilder, he’s a bit wet to be honest but he’s decent enough and his is one of the more stirring stories.
If there’s a complaint to be raised with the story it’s that the first half is probably better than the second. About half way through you gain control of your very own ship, the Delphinus, a powerfully equipped steel battleship of Valuan design. As captain of this ship you travel the world hiring crew members and operating from your own base while taking on all aggressors with the ludicrously powerful Moon Stone Cannon. As awesome as all that is there’s something somehow more exciting about playing the underdog as you explore with Drachma’s beaten-up old ship the Little Jack which comes armed with the less powerful but somehow cooler Harpoon Cannon. The adventures of the first half feel fresher and more exhilarating than the latter stages and while the game is never less than thrilling something is definitely lost at the mid-point.
Battles follow a strictly turn-based routine with the emphasis firmly on strategy instead of skill and in any given skirmish you have several options available. Everyone can perform a basic attack which has a chance of landing a critical hit and can also be countered. You can elect to guard, so reducing the amount of damage the character receives for the duration of the turn. If you need to heal or give your party some sort of boost you can use any number of items you’ve gathered. You can spend a single Magic Point and cast any magic spell the character has learned. If you realise you can’t win or can’t be bothered you can attempt to run from battle. If the situation demands you can execute any individual characters’ Super Moves. And finally you can Focus, which brings us to Spirit Points.
The party shares a pool of SP which is required to use Magic and Super Moves. Each character has a base level of spirit that will be added to the pool at the start of each turn – this base will slowly increase as you level up a lot. Each Super Move or spell comes with a set SP cost which will be removed from the pool when you make your selection. If you choose to focus you will manually increase the party’s SP by a value equal to the focusing character’s base SP amount, so doing so helps you store up SP for powerful attacks more quickly. Each character also contributes a maximum SP value to the pool which also increases as you gain experience so the stronger you get the more SP you can store at a time. Once Vyse becomes a captain he will be able to use two Captain Attacks to deal massive damage to opponents and possibly to heal allies. These can be unleashed only when you have increased your SP level to maximum, whatever that is, and doing so cancels all other actions both ally and enemy for the entire turn.
As battle systems go it’s well-balanced and very accessible and you will never be left without options. The battles themselves are animated dynamically with characters moving around the arena freely exchanging background attack animations at random. Most encounters with minor league enemies will require nothing more than a few basic attacks to clear but tougher enemies will see you dipping into your SP. The Super Moves are the stars of the show, each one coming with suitably grand and entertaining animations. Many of these moves are offensive, such as Vyse’s Cutlass Fury, which deals heavy damage to a single target but there are many more strategic choices. Aika’s Delta Shield blocks all magic including your own while Vyse’s Skull Shield negates all damage done to the party from basic enemy attacks while simultaneously countering. Most of Fina’s Super Moves involve healing in some way. The Super Moves are very useful and a lot of fun to use (my personal favourite is Gilder’s Gunslinger) and if you’re so inclined you can skip the animations, which is handy when Aika learns Lambda Burst, a move that damages all opponents, as you’ll spend most of the game using it to quickly blow through large groups of weak enemies.
Magic on the other hand isn’t so well integrated. You learn spells based on the colour of Moon Stone assigned to each character’s weapon which you can alter at any time in battle. The colour of the weapon can affect the damage they do when compared to an enemy’s colour, with various type advantages but it also dictates how Magic Experience, which is awarded with every victory, is distributed. Every character will gain Magic Experience of a colour any party member has assigned to their weapon but the amount is doubled in the case of their own colour. This way you can gain experience in up to four different colours at a time but the learning process is quite slow and some characters learn spells faster than others, Fina being the best.
There are six spells available for each colour, most of them simply offensive. Red fire attack spells damage all opponents while purple ice-based ones target one. Blue water and wind spells are aimed at a single enemy but will damage other nearby foes with the area of effect increasing with the strength of the spell. Yellow electric spells also focus on one target but can strike several foes positioned in a line between the caster and target with the damage radius widening the better the spell. There are a couple of green poison-based spells but the lion’s share of green magic is given over to healing. Silver attacks spells have a chance of causing instant death to targets in various ways, while the other strategic options can cure status ailments and resurrect unconscious allies. Other strategic spells can improve party stats or inflict negative statuses such as silence (inability to use magic) or confusion (unit attacks whoever is nearest, friend or foe).
Most of the time you won’t need to use magic. Early in the game the spells you have won’t be powerful enough to lend a particularly big advantage over normal attacks and particularly Super Moves which are often enough to get the job done. Each character comes with a set level of Magic Points which will deplete with each spell cast and this can work as a deterrent compared to Super Moves which only require SP. Still, the colourful animations are suitably spectacular when you do want to use magic and you’ll need to do so to get the best out of Fina.
Overall I find Skies of Arcadia’s battle system extremely enjoyable and satisfying even if it isn’t entirely original or challenging. I’ve never been able to understand why turn-based RPGs have become such a taboo. Identifying real-time RPGs as better seems illogical to me because they’re two entirely different styles of play, one that focuses on skill, one on strategy. To me it’s like questioning the relevance of chess when there is such a thing as boxing. In the modern era of gaming in which RPG elements are creeping into more and more games and blurring the genre’s identity, I mourn the loss of turn-based gameplay.
But it doesn’t end with normal party battles in Skies of Arcadia. This game also introduces the concept of ship battles. At various points throughout the story you will find yourself in a scrap with an enemy ship or some giant monster in which you must make good use of cannon to triumph. These showdowns are also turn-based but work quite differently from normal battles. At the start of each turn each character in the party must issue an order whether it be firing a cannon, using magic, focusing or guarding. These orders are placed onto a grid which determines the order of events. At the top of this grid a display indicates your strategic advantages and disadvantages depending on the scripted movements of the ships. A column marked with a C indicates a turn in which your attacks will be more effective while any headed by a yellow or red marker warns of the likelihood of a powerful enemy attack. Once you’ve issued your commands you will watch events play out as you exchange blows with your opponent. Cannon fire costs MP just the same as Super Moves, as does your Super Cannon, an extra-powerful weapon that can only be fired in specific turns. These Super Cannons, the Little Jack’s Harpoon Cannon and the Delphinus’ Moon Stone Cannon, are pretty spectacular to watch in action and deliver massive damage as well as a powerful sense of satisfaction.
Ship Battles are the USP of Skies of Arcadia’s gameplay and offer an excellent sense of variety that works brilliantly with the story. Battles themselves are relatively few but since they can be a bit long-winded this isn’t such a bad thing. They certainly make for some of the most memorable moments in the game and upgrading your ship with new cannons and accessories is every bit as rewarding as outfitting your party of heroes.
The rest of the gameplay revolves around the side quests, which are many and brilliant. The world is littered with Chams which can be fed to Cupil, a strange shape-shifting silver creature that is Fina’s companion and primary weapon. Cupil will transform into a variety of offensive things such as swords and strike enemies and he requires Chams to upgrade. In the Gamecube version you will also be on constant lookout for Moonfish, invisible floating creatures whose presence you are alerted to by a chime. These can be taken to Doc and Maria to feed to a strange bird who will regurgitate rare items as reward.
There are also plenty of optional and very challenging boss battles to tackle. When visiting the Sailor’s Guild, branches of which are found in settlements throughout the world, you can check a list of wanted pirates which will guide you to their whereabouts. Entering into a Wanted Battle will demand the most intense strategizing of you and the rewards for victory are very great. Furthermore in Legends you will also encounter Piastol, a female bounty hunter who kills Air Pirates and has a particularly vendetta against Vyse. Her battles are just as tough but come with an intriguing back-story that ties in with another part of the game in a rather touching way.
But it’s the Discoveries that really make the game’s side questing memorable. As you sail around the intricate world you will sometimes notice your compass spinning. Pressing A at this time will reveal a Discovery. This might be anything from an interesting rock formation to a remnant of an ancient civilization to an entire continent. Some Discoveries can be found in plain sight but many are invisible until you find them and doing so requires a great deal of exploration, which fits in with the themes of the game beautifully. Every Discovery you make is worth money at the Sailor’s Guild and tracking them all down, even with the clues you can pay for, is a daunting task, especially when it comes to the Discoveries that move around the map. Finding them all without the use of a guide will take an enormous amount of patience and dedication.
The last thing to mention is the Swashbuckler Rating. This is basically a title for Vyse that indicates his status as a Blue Rogue. He begins as Vyse the Unimpressive but gradually gains more and more admirable titles up to Vyse, King of Rogues. The only way to improve your Swashbuckler Ratings is to make good leadership decisions at frequent points throughout the story. You will always have two choices and you must select the scripted correct answer. This really makes you think about the context of the story in an engaging and fresh way and hearing the sound cue indicating a correct choice is rewarding every time.
There are a number of additional ratings you can achieve by completing various objectives that are ranked higher than Vyse, King of Rogues. For winning a lot of Ship Battles you will be crowned Sky Battle King Vyse while if you defeat all of the bounties on the Wanted List you will become known as Vyse the Bounty King. The ultimate status of Vyse the Legend is reserved for players who manage to complete pretty much every side quest including opening every chest, which is a considerable but hugely enjoyable undertaking. Seeing that glorious status on the final screen makes it feel like a worthwhile accomplishment.
Graphically the game looks pretty good for its time although it goes without saying that it looks fairly rough by modern standards. Some blurriness aside the game is bright and colourful and filled with detail but it’s the excellent art direction that makes the look of the world pop. The pirate steampunk themes come through in everything from the cool ship designs to the clutter found in shops and houses and there’s plenty to see wherever you go. Some of the environments can look a little bland and empty but even the dullest locales find a deep sense of atmosphere through the use of colour.
The real success of the visuals is in the cinematic direction which approaches a movie level of immersion. Cut scenes are enlivened by the bold use of camera angles and a real eye for the spectacular nature of the world and even in-game the simple presence of a free camera draws you into the reality of the locations far better than pre-rendered environments and static cameras ever could. Some areas of the presentation could use some work; text boxes are ugly and some of the menus could be prettier. The script does everything it needs to very capably but it could be sharper. The quality of the sound is rather up and down with several muddy and unpleasant sound effects mixing with better ones. The limited voice work is fairly decent on the whole and conveys character quite ably (the cast includes Charles Martinet, the voice of Mario) but the recording quality tends to vary. These criticisms do not apply to the musical score.
Video game music means quite a lot to me and there are plenty of classic soundtracks out there but my favourite, above even the best of Zelda and Sonic, is that of Skies of Arcadia. The music, which is almost entirely MIDI-based, compliments the story perfectly with a range of exuberant and boldly melodious tunes that guide the sense of adventure and escapism throughout. In that sense I cannot understate its importance to the overall experience of the game. I could happily listen to such themes as those of Horteka, Valua City and Rixis and various tunes that accompany story sequences at any time. The sense of mood, setting and character they convey is huge and extremely potent. Battle themes meanwhile are suitably exciting and dramatic, with the various boss themes becoming more and more serious and compelling as the game progresses. The final boss theme, Opportunity, perfectly evokes a sense of climax in a way that really makes you feel how long a journey it has been.
Then there is the theme of the Little Jack, which delivers a feeling of pure adventure more perfectly than any tune I’ve heard in my life and is another thing that is sorely missed after the halfway point. But best of all, and my number one piece of video game music of all time, is the fully-orchestrated credits theme. This is a remix of the orchestrated title screen piece, a moving and poignant tune in its own right. The credits version is just beautiful and hits a range of different moods from adventure to poignancy to climax. Listening to it as the credits scroll having finished a playthrough is an incredibly bittersweet experience, you feel elated and satisfied at beating the game but sad that it’s over. It’s a truly special piece of music.
Like all the best big JRPGs, Skies of Arcadia is long. Even if you blitz through you’re looking at forty hours of gameplay but seeing everything will take considerably longer. I went for 100% and that Vyse the Legend rating with this playthrough and clocked fifty-five hours which lasted the best part of a month and I loved every single second. It’s not the most difficult game in the world but it really doesn’t need to be. There’s certainly enough challenge to keep you occupied and first timers will find some of the bosses tough but the joy of the game is in the experience of the story and the adventure rather than the trials you’ll face along the way.
Playing Skies of Arcadia is like losing yourself in another world that’s much better than the real one. It makes me want to be an Air Pirate, to sail off in search of treasure, discovery and adventure. Joining Vyse and his friends as they set out into an unknowable world full of surprises and never knowing what you’ll encounter next is among the most sincere joys I’ve ever known with as a gamer. It’s deeply embedded into every corner of the game. It’s in the way your map starts out small and blank but fills in and expands as you discover more of the world. It’s in that feeling of excitement you get when your compass starts spinning and you make a new Discovery. It’s in every perilous and breathless adventure the script takes you on. The game has its rough spots and some aspects of the gameplay won’t appeal to everyone but for me it is quite simply one of the finest examples of escapist fiction, my favourite thing in this life, that I have ever had the great pleasure of knowing.
Design – 9
Gameplay – 9
Graphics – 7
Sound – 8
Content – 10
Not a huge number of people have played Skies of Arcadia in either of its forms but those that have universally love it. As a cult favourite it stands alone and the prospect of a long-awaited sequel, something that has been rumoured since Sega renewed the trademark, is about the most exciting thing I can think of. The game is showing its age a little but has never been bettered at what it does. This game is a masterpiece of adventure.